Banner of the cooperative of Jewish shoemakers, Czechoslovakia, n.d. Klaus Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic. (Scala/Art Resource, NY)

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Merchants’ and artisans’ guilds were introduced into Eastern Europe during the thirteenth century by German immigrants. Taking their cue from West European counterparts, members of East European guilds sought to exclude Jews from the organizations. Despite such restrictions, Jewish artisans continued to work in trades; disputes subsequently erupted between Christian guilds and Jewish artisans.

In Poland–Lithuania, merchants and artisans formed guilds known as cechy. Since by the eighteenth century Jewish merchants were powerful figures in most areas of domestic and international commerce, there was little need for organizations to protect their status; these merchants were, in any case, subject to rules of local communal organizations. However, the situation was different for Jews in crafts and certain other occupations. Even before the fifteenth century, Polish cechy sold special permits to Jewish artisans, permitting them to work exclusively for the Jewish community in ways that would not conflict with the demands of halakhah (Jewish law). This system was particularly effective for tailors, ritual slaughterers, and butchers. During the sixteenth century, Jewish artisans expanded into other sectors, working in fields that had no special Jewish requirements. At the same time, such workers began offering their services to the non-Jewish population.

Christian artisan guilds responded to this new development in several ways. Some placed a comprehensive ban on Jewish artisans joining their ranks, while others allowed Jews, under very strict conditions, to join them. There were yet other guilds that set up separate sections for Jews and other non-Christians. Characteristics specific to individual towns influenced the attitudes of individual guilds toward Jewish artisans. For example, owners of many private towns promoted Jewish craftsmanship in order to exert pressure on local guilds to break their monopoly. Elsewhere, Jewish artisan guilds appeared; as was true of all guilds, they fulfilled military obligations in defending the town. Sometimes Jewish guilds participated in annual civic celebrations and ceremonies, their members carrying their own banners, similar to those of the non-Jewish guilds.

The Christian guilds’ stance toward Jews was no different than their attitude toward other national minorities and ethnic groups; however, while the latter were content to join existing guilds, Jews increasingly sought to establish their own, incorporating elements both from Christian guilds and Jewish religious societies. These associations were called ḥevrot ba‘ale malakhah. While the Christian guilds served a mostly economic function, protecting the members of the guilds from competition and creating monopolies, these Jewish religious societies also provided religious and social services to their members. Many Jewish guilds could not call themselves cechy, since by law each town could legally have only one guild per profession. Accordingly, Jewish guilds were referred to as bractwo (artisans’ associations) and could not operate without the permission of municipal guilds.

In addition, Jewish artisans had to seek permission from Christian guilds to receive professional training or to hire Jewish or Christian apprentices. Jewish artisan associations therefore took on three functions: they attempted to protect members from the influence of Christian municipal guilds; they tried to prevent professional competition; and they even attempted to organize themselves against individual Jews who operated outside the guild framework and offered services at what were perceived as unfairly low prices.

The earliest recorded Jewish guild in Poland–Lithuania was the furrier’s guild founded in Kazimierz in 1613. Records indicate that by 1648, there were nine more Jewish guilds of furriers, tailors, barbers, and peddlers, concentrated in the Kraków and Lwów regions. Jewish guilds began to spread over a wide area during the eighteenth century, forming more than 100 organizations. Generally, a Jewish guild represented only one occupation.

There were three categories of guild membership: apprentice, journeyman, and master. An essential goal of the guilds was to train and teach the young apprentices; a variety of regulations governed this process. To instruct the beginners, a Jewish master had to have his own workshop for a period of more than three years, and it was uncommon for a Jewish master to hire more than one journeyman. The training process usually extended over five years, and during the first year of training, the apprentice received no pay. An apprentice could become a journeyman only after marriage, following two more years of residency. To become a master in some Polish towns, Jews had to pass a test before a committee of masters from non-Jewish guilds.

Even though Jewish guilds were established to fulfill an economic function, they also offered religious services, mutual support, and other assistance. Numerous large guilds formed synagogues, courts, and other communal institutions, while the less wealthy or smaller ones were satisfied with only conducting religious services. Jewish artisans’ associations required members to participate in daily and holiday prayers, with financial penalties for members who did not participate. The imposed fines were used to buy candles for the guilds’ prayer houses.

In contrast to non-Jewish guilds that enjoyed political clout in many towns, Jewish guilds had no significant political influence. Within Jewish society, the artisan was not ranked highly. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, constant tensions existed between the communal leadership and guild members who often complained that they were discriminated against and underrepresented. Jewish guild regulations were also subject to the approval of the kahal (communal government).

Jewish guilds also existed in Bohemia and Moravia. In Prague, the first Jewish guild (of butchers) was formed before 1620. Over the course of the seventeenth century, other guilds were organized by tailors, furriers, weavers, embroiderers, shoemakers, silversmiths and goldsmiths, and Hebrew book printers in such cities as Mikulov (Nikolsburg) and Uherský Brod (Ungarisch Brod). Their structures were modeled on the Christian guilds. Until 1648, Jewish guilds in Moravia were only allowed to serve the Jewish public. Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, the position of Jewish guilds strengthened; no longer was it possible to prevent them from operating among the general public. In Moldavia, Jewish craft workers were not required to join a guild or artisan association. Even so, Jewish artisans there began to organize in the second half of the eighteenth century into guilds that provided assistance in professional, religious, and social matters. From 1863, the various Jewish guilds began to lose control over their sectors.

Christian guilds in Russia did not enjoy a monopoly and could not prevent Jewish artisans from being working at various occupations. Freedom of occupation was specifically laid out in the 1804 Constitution, with additional legislative acts passed in 1852 and 1865. These acts allowed Jewish artisans to join non-Jewish guilds; indeed, Jews who succeeded in doing so gained the right to settle outside the Pale of Settlement. In the Pale where most Jews lived, guilds had little power, and in cities with substantial Jewish populations, including Odessa and Berdichev, most local craftsmen were Jewish. Nevertheless, Jewish artisan associations in Russia were quite common not because of their economic function, but rather because they addressed the religious, social, and cultural needs of their members.

In the 1800s, Christian guilds gradually lost their power throughout Eastern Europe. The economic decline of Jewish guilds in Russia, Lithuania, and Ukraine began in the second half of that century. Industrialization—evident in the establishment of modern factories by Jewish and non-Jewish capitalists—led to the growth of Jewish professional associations. In most of these frameworks, the old division of masters, artisans, and journeymen no longer existed: the Jewish artisans’ associations instead became workers’ unions.

Suggested Reading

Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2nd ed., rev. and enl., vol. 10, pp. 253–265 (Philadelphia, 1952); Eliyahu Feldman, Ba‘ale mela’khah yehudim be-Molda’vyah (Jerusalem, 1982); Maurycy Horn, Żydzi na Rusi Czerwonej (Warsaw, 1975); Maurycy Horn, “The Chronology and Distribution of Jews’ Craft Guilds in Old Poland,” in The Jews in Old Poland, 1000–1795, ed. Antony Polonsky, Jakub Basista, and Andrzej Link-Lenczowski, pp. 249–266 (London, 1993); Maurycy Horn, Żydowskie bractwa rzemieślnicze . . . , 1613–1850 (Warsaw, 1998); Moshe Kramer, “Le-Ḥeker ha-mela’khah ve-ḥevrot ba‘ale mela’khah etsel yehude Polin ba-me’ot ha-17–ha-18,” Tsiyon 2 (1927): 295–324; Mark Wischnitzer, A History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds (New York, 1965).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler